If any day of the year is appropriate for making wishes, it has to be Christmas. While the year has been pretty good for me, there is still an unmet wish: I long for politicians who simply do not exist: guiltless innocents who would be as incorruptible as the family dog. With all the reality television shows currently masquerading as debates, this wish has become an obsession.
Frequently, I discuss this with Professor Grumbles (my dear friend, the German professor, whose formative economic training suffers from a surplus of Frank Capra movies). He steadfastly believes that all business owners are Mr. Potter--without a single George Bailey to keep them in check. Obviously, he has watched It's a Wonderful Life and believed it to be a documentary.
I, on the other hand, am just as guilty as he: In my case, the Capra movie is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a movie about a common, honest man who becomes a United States Senator. I love the movie, and measure every politician against Jefferson Smith--a practice that, in our current political climate, is rather like using a yardstick to measure fleas.
This is not a documentary about the workings of Congress, but a very simple movie about an ordinary American. The senator's home state is never mentioned and there is no mention of the Great Depression, Hitler's Europe, or even the Democrat or Republican Parties. This is not a movie about politics, but a movie about an everyday man who stands up for right; it is a story about a man who is a hero in the face of overwhelming pressure. (There are a few hints available to us, however: The original title of the unpublished story was "The Gentleman from Montana" and the movie makes it clear that the junior senator is a member of the minority party, which in 1939 would have been the Republican Party, which was the party of both Capra and Stewart.)
As in every good Capra movie, there is a simple visual clue that will aid you in understanding the movie. Simply look at how tall Mr. Smith is in any given frame. Played by Jimmy Stewart, when Jefferson Smith is an "ordinary man", somehow Stewart's 6'3" frame is folded into a small chair or he is seen at an angle that shows him to be shorter than his costars, despite his actually being almost a foot taller than most of them. This is Mr. Smith as the innocent common man.
But, when Jefferson Smith rises to meet his challenges, he quite literally stands tall. No longer a clumsy, awkward child who has landed amidst troubles he cannot challenge, Mr. Smith towers over corrupt politicians. I tear up every time I watch the movie.
Strangely, this now-classic and beloved movie did not have a promising start. When produced, the film was hated in Hollywood and some even thought that Frank Capra was pushing a pro-communist movie. The premier was held in Washington, with almost half the senate in attendance, and Capra recorded in his autobiography that the audience booed and jeered...and over a thousand people left the theater before the movie was over. Even the senator who had been invited to share Capra’s box was angry.
The Washington Press Corps, who had invited Capra to premiere the movie in the capitol, despised the movie. Facing a new rival in influencing the public, journalism feared what Capra termed “film power”. The director was cornered in a booth at the Washington Press Club by an angry newspaper editor who, clutching a martini loudly proclaimed: “There isn’t one Washington correspondent in this room that drinks on duty, or off duty!”
The Senate Majority Leader, Alben W. Barkley called the film "silly and stupid", and claimed it "makes the Senate look like a bunch of crooks." Congress, angry that the movie portrayed them as a collection of fools, struck back at Hollywood by passing bills that eventually led to the breakup of the studio-owned theater chains.
Joe Kennedy, our ambassador to England—and the father of a future president—wrote both the studio and Capra that the movie would damage American prestige in Europe during the early days of World War II. He called the film “one of the most disgraceful things I have ever seen done to our country.”
Senator James Byrnes called the picture “outrageous…exactly the kind of picture that dictators of totalitarian governments would like to have their subjects believe exists in democracy….”
Actually, just the opposite was true. Franco banned the movie in Spain, Hitler prohibited it in Germany, and Mussolini banned it in Italy. It is understandable when virulently anti-communist fascist regimes ban a supposedly pro-communist movie, but this doesn't explain why Stalin banned the movie in the Soviet Union.
Despite the opposition, the movie was shown. Some countries changed the dialog when they dubbed the movie into the local language so that the movie's message could be altered to conform to the local official ideology. And when occupied France was given one month to stop showing American movie by the Nazis, many theaters picked Mr. Smith as the last Hollywood movie to show before the ban took effect. One theater in Paris showed the movie every day for 30 days.
It did not take long for the movie's detractors to change their mind. The movie was nominated for 11 Academy Awards. (The film only won one of the awards—for best story—but 1939 was an exceptional year for movies. Among the competition were The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Fantasia, and Stagecoach.). In 1989, the Library of Congress added the movie to the United States National Film Registry, for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
When it comes to politics, the movie has ruined me. Capra sucked me in, and even today, I believe in the difference that one man can make. I believe in those ideals, if for no other reason that those ideals are the things worth believing in. And it makes it damn hard to watch what we call politics today.